Bogart. Bergman. Henreid. Rains. Romance. Intrigue. Espionage. Patriotism. Humor. Humanity. Just a few of the reasons why I was one of what I hope were millions who went to a local movie theater last night to see a film I’d seen countless times before. I imagined being part of a WWII American audience simply doing what I did every Saturday, going to the movies on main street, anywhere USA.
The film, of course is Casablanca. Originally intended as just another Warner Bros. release, just another production, and one more notch for the assembly line. But oh, did the cinema gods ever align for this one!
The New York premier of Casablanca was on November 26, 1942, a pre-release engagement at the Hollywood Theater located on 51st Street. The film opened in Los Angeles in January 1943. As part of the program in 1942, audiences saw a newsreel, probably something along the lines of “Arsenal of Democracy” showing Allied Forces push forth in Europe, a Warner Bros. cartoon (Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes), the latest installment of the day’s popular serial, and, in many theaters throughout the country, a B-feature – as if Bogart, Bergman, Henreid and Rains weren’t enough. God, I wish I lived then.
But, thanks to Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events, I got the next best thing. I was able to watch Casablanca on a big screen. Possibly an once-in-a-lifetime event and it was superb. Here’s how it went and what I saw.
A big-budget film for its time filled with A-listers, Casablanca cost under $1 million to make and had a box-office intake of slightly more than $4 million. As a fan of the film, the least I could do was prepare to pay about that much for popcorn and a soda to watch the brilliant plot unfold on the big screen. Credit card at the ready, I headed out to the theater early – a true geek. I simply HAD TO get the perfect seat. It’s a simple formula, the seat must be close enough so the images are huge as intended but far enough so I don’t strain my neck. – “I stick my neck out for nobody.” (Let it be known I was willing to knock over old ladies and trample children to get to the perfect destination. Glad, I didn’t have to.)
In the perfect seat I waited for the film to start. After a Fathom pre-show, Robert Osborne, host on Turner Classic Movies, came on screen. Mr. Osborne introduced the film in the classy way TCM aficionados are accustomed to – it’s like coming home after a long day at work and being given hot cocoa by someone you love. Comfort and warmth overpowered excitement. Included in the introduction were celebrity commentary on the film, a few who are part of the cast and crew of the great film.
And then it started. The fabulous Max Steiner score began to play. The map of Africa as we follow the
refugee trails – Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran. Then, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco where the unfortunate ones wait and wait and wait for their opportunity to leave, if it ever appears. Well, I’d waited long enough for a visit, a new visit – it was worth it. Casablanca looks spectacular!
Noticeable during any viewing of the film, the cinematography in Casablanca is wonderful. The big screen and a digital revamping only make it all truer. That lighting! Of Ingrid Bergman in particular – a vision! They lit her to perfection, an angel for a cause. Stunning! Just the kind of woman that would get to Rick.
Humphrey Bogart was never better or more handsome. On the big screen bigger, more romantic, more determined to stay neutral (though he never is), a grander hero in the end and a greater love lost. Rick is the greatest performance of the beloved actor’s career – in my opinion, anyway. He plays the tough-shelled, cynic who loves madly and always does the right thing to perfection. A sentimentalist through and through. I love this character and I love Bogie, which only means I’m like most people.
Paul Henreid, again bigger than life, leading La Marseillaise with conviction enough to move me to tears. When Ingrid looks at him during the song, as he forcefully, enthusiastically sings to honor France – the pride on her face, just lovely. Spectacular scene. Completing the love triangle in the film, Henreid matches up to Bogart and Bergman nicely on the big screen. I admit I’d never reacted to him that way before. Viktor Laszlo and his cause demand a big screen.
Claude Rains as Captain Renault who’s just like any other man, only more so. Dripping with sarcasm and humor, the corrupt Prefect of Police alone makes the film worth watching. Mr. Rains had a style and grace all his own. Although not a tall man, his presence was enormous. He was truly one of the greats who made the classics classier. He’s unforgettable in Casablanca.
And then there’s the script. Brilliant. One memorable line after another. A story of a particular time and place but for the ages. You can’t beat that – but the score comes close thanks to the genius of Max Steiner. It was wonderful to hear all of it – the words, the music – resonating through a theater, as I had never heard them before. Incidentally, it didn’t hurt, to have a packed house of fans appreciate it all as much as I did.
The film finished and thunderous applause broke out. I usually feel awkward when people clap after a movie. But this was different. These were claps for class. In this case they were well-deserved and appropriate.
I am giddy I got the opportunity to see this film in grand form on a big screen. Now commonly considered a cinema treasure, Casablanca is one of those things that simply makes me shake my head – like watching/hearing Judy emote a song, seeing Fred dance, Spencer act – no mere words can describe it. One can only be grateful we have it to enjoy forever- “Knock on Wood!”
That was my night in Casablanca. I left the theater with a bourbon afterglow.
To Turner Classic Movies, a sincere thank you from a fan. Not only for sponsoring this event, but also for keeping our beloved classics alive. You are a lifeline for our greatest art form.